"No regrets" is a preposterous saying. The odds that any given thing you do is the best thing you could have possibly done in that situation are vanishingly small. You should regret almost everything. I sure do. Going through all of your mistakes is a much bigger project, but this list is meant to make you feel bad about 20 of them.
Your biggest regrets, in one chart
First, let's look at what other peoples' biggest regrets are, to give you some ideas about what to feel bad about. Psychologists Mike Morrison and Neal Roese called up 370 adults and asked them to report one regret of theirs in detail. As the chart shows, personal regrets were reported more than professional ones. While no single category dominated, the education, career, and finance categories amounted to only 35 percent of regrets reported. The rest dealt with things like romance, family, parenting, health, friendships, and spirituality.
This is what you regret from college
This chart, from a report by Charley Stone, Carl Van Horn, and Cliff Zukin from the Heldrich Center at Rutgers, shows the biggest regrets of 444 college grads from the classes of 2006 through 2011, as stated in the spring of 2012. Some of these aren't really regrets, since they're not things that are totally under the control of the person in question (you can't conjure up offers for internships or part-time jobs out of thin air). But if you went to college, you probably had control over your major, and a plurality of respondents expressed regrets about their choice there. What do they think they should have done instead? Well, the survey also found "a majority of all recent college graduates said they wish they had taken more computer and technology classes."
But really, you should regret your major
Recent grads' major regrets have some basis. A paper by the Hamilton Project's Brad Hershbein and Melissa Kearney found substantial variation in median lifetime earnings by major. The median chemical engineering major earns $2.11 million over the course of her career, while the median early childhood education major makes $770,000 (which is distressing given what an important job that is). We don't know how much of this differential is caused by the majors themselves. Students who major in chemical engineering and those who major in early childhood education probably differ in a number of other ways that could also help explain the earnings gap. But especially when you're comparing between related fields where students are likely very similar — say, between chemical engineering and biomedical engineering — you can probably ascribe a good portion of the gap to the difference in specialty.
You should've gone to school longer
The causal evidence on majors is murky, but the evidence that going to school for longer increases your income isn't. There's a wide array of experimental and quasi-experimental evidence suggesting that additional years of schooling increase your income. Twin studies — which are able to control for genetics and home environment — find that the twin with more education typically earns more. Studies utilizing the draft lottery — and subsequent access to free education among those selected to fight — find the same thing. People who drop out of high school when they turn 16 earn less if their birthday is in September (and so they miss both junior and senior years) than if it's in June or July (which means they only miss senior year). This chart shows how more schooling correlates with higher earnings, but there's a lot of evidence to suggest it causes higher earnings too.
You should have invested more in stocks
Are you mostly invested in stocks? You probably should be, if you're not retiring soon. Over the past two centuries, stocks have substantially outperformed bonds, Treasury notes, and gold as an investment vehicle. If you had $1 in 1802 and invested it in a stock index (a thing that didn't exist at the time but humor me for a second), you could expect $704,997, after inflation, in 2012. If you put the money in bonds, you'd only get $1,778. If you put it in gold, you'd only have $4.52. It's always possible that the past two hundred years are an anomaly, but it's unclear why things would reverse course now. That makes it pretty concerning that as many Americans think gold is the best investment choice as think stocks are.
You should save more for retirement
Generally speaking, if you're in your 20s you should be socking away at least 12 to 15 percent of your income toward retirement. If you're older, and especially if you didn't start early, you should probably be putting away more than that. But the average personal savings rate in the US is a mere 4.9 percent. Maybe you beat the average. Good for you. But you probably didn't — and you probably should have started saving earlier (and of course, the government should be supporting policies that make it easier and more manageable for working families to save).
If you're a Millennial, you should be using a credit card
Credit cards are great. They help you build credit to make things like home and auto loans easier to get, and they come with way more consumer protections than debit cards or checks. But 63 percent of Millennials don't have them. That means they wasted years that could have been spent building credit. Nice job, Millennials.
You should pay off your credit card every month
42.7 percent of credit card accounts have balances left on them from month to month, compared to 29 percent that lie dormant and only 28.3 percent that are paid off in full every month. That's pretty concerning, given how bad not paying off your card balance every month is. A CreditCards.com analysis based on data from the credit report agency Experian, the Federal Reserve, the New York Fed, TransUnion, and the Census, found that the average account that's paid off in full has $1,098 in debt, whereas the average account with a balance left on it has $7,743. This is intuitive and obvious at some level; if you pay your card off monthly, then your debt balance is just going to be a reflection of your spending patterns, whereas leaving a balance lets it gain interest and accumulate. But it still underscores how easy it is to dig yourself into a hole through credit card debt.
You don't give enough to charity
This chart breaks down spending by Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman, a Boston-based couple I greatly admire, in 2012. The duo earned a total of $101,625 that year and gave $49,933 to charity, mostly to the Against Malaria Foundation, one of the most efficient charities in the world, and to Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, non-profits that promote giving and ethical careers. Once donations, taxes, savings, and education costs are counted, Julia and Jeff estimated they spent $12,107 on themselves, about 11.9 percent of their pre-tax income. I don't know about you, but I certainly regret that my money wasn't used that altruistically in 2012 (or 2013, or 2014).
You should be living in Minneapolis
It is the official position of Vox.com that you should move to Minneapolis. As the chart here indicates, it has very high levels of economic mobility; that is, it's relatively common for people to climb the income ladder significantly. But its housing is also significantly cheaper than a lot of cities popular with Millennials. It's a bit more expensive than Pittsburgh, as the graph shows, but absolute incomes are also higher, so Minneapolis wins out. If you care less about mobility and only about making as much money as possible, then the Bay Area and DC have the highest cost-of-living-adjusted median incomes of any metro area. But Rochester, Minnesota comes in third. Minnesota beckons you. You should answer its call.
You shouldn't have sat so much
This chart illustrates findings from a 2009 study that tracked over 17,000 Canadians from 1981 to 1993 and compared death rates by the amount of time respondents spent sitting. The more sitting time reported, the lower the respondents' chances of survival. This is just one data point out of the many suggesting that sitting too much can be quite deadly.
You don't sleep enough
Nearly 30 percent of people getting less than 7 hours a sleep per night report having difficulty concentrating due to lack of sleep, with smaller but still substantial fractions reporting difficulty with memory, working on hobbies, transportation, attentiveness to financial matters, and work. The share reporting these difficulties is much lower for people getting 7 to 9 hours a sleep per night. Get more sleep.
You're not up to date on vaccines
Vaccine coverage rates for adults in the US are too low for a number of diseases, according to the CDC. For example, only 15.6 percent of people age 19 to 64 are up to date on the Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, dipththeria, and pertussis (aka "whooping cough"). That's especially concerning in light of the recent rise in whooping cough outbreaks. Get vaccinated.
You don't eat healthy enough
In fact, Americans eat less than half as much fruit as they're supposed to: 36 percent of the recommended levels. Those recommendations are somewhat controversial among nutritionists — the dairy requirement in particular seems a bit dubious — but the core point that Americans don't get enough fruit and vegetables is concerning. Eat an apple or something.
You eat inhumanely produced eggs
According to data United Egg Producers provided to the New York Times in 2010, the overwhelming majority of eggs produced in the United States come from hens kept in what are called "battery cages." UEP guidelines mandate cages that have at least 67 square inches per bird, or a bit more than 8 by 8 inches. About 15 percent of hens, UEP told the Times, are raised by farmers who don't participate in its voluntary animal welfare program or otherwise don't meet that standard. These birds have even more smaller spaces. 2 percent of eggs are cage free, but that just means the hens are kept indoors in big barns, where they have a minimum of 120 square inches (a bit less than 11 by 11 inches), per UEP guidelines. Only 1 percent are free range, and even those offer limited access to the outdoors. If you're not vegan, this is what you're paying for.
You don't exercise enough
First, the good news: Americans are working out more than they did 15 years ago. In 1998, a whopping 56.6 percent of Americans failed to meet federal fitness guidelines for both aerobic and strength training. Now, 53.4 percent meet at least one guideline. But a distinct minority (20.8 percent) meet both. A bare majority of Americans meet the aerobic guidelines, so the problem is mostly with strength training.
If you're a guy, you should do more housework
It's 2014, and yet American women still do, on average, two hours and six minutes of housework a day, while men only do an hour and 22 minutes. That's a gap of 44 minutes, which is actually a lot smaller than many countries' gaps. Portuguese women do 3 hours and 22 minutes more housework. France, the UK, Germany, and New Zealand all have gaps larger than an hour. Even in Sweden, which boasts the smallest gap here, nonetheless still has one, with women doing 16 more minutes per day. Feel bad, men. Feel bad.
Men, you also need to step it up on childcare
At least for opposite-gender couples, substantial inequities persist on child care, with mothers reporting twice as much time spent on child care per week as fathers. Step it up, dads.
You shouldn't have gotten that dog
Do you have a dog? Yes? Is it a Border Collie? No? Well David McCandless of Data is Beautiful has a bone to pick with you. He rated 87 dog breeds for intelligence (specifically, ability to learn new commands and/or ease of training), lifespan, number of serious genetic ailments, average price and food costs, and frequency of grooming. The Border Collie came out the winner. It's not great with kids; if you work that in Border Terriers come out on top. In any case, probablistically speaking it's nearly certain you got the wrong dog as far as McCandless is concerned.
You shouldn't have read this list
Seriously, what is wrong with you? As this chart, adapted from a paper by UC - Riverside's Sonja Lyubomirsky and Chris Tkach, illustrates, ruminating on negative thoughts and memories can unlock a vicious cycle that is deeply corrosive to happiness. "Rumination in the context of a depressed mood may amplify the effects of the negative mood on thinking by selectively priming mood-relevant information and activating networks of negative memories, beliefs, expectations, and schemas," they write. "In turn, the resulting negatively biased judgments and interpretations may maintain, or even enhance, depressed mood, nourishing the vicious cycle between depressed mood and thinking." So stop reading this list and go read something happy.
- Writer Dylan Matthews
- Editor Tim Lee
- Developer Yuri Victor
Correction: Item number 13 was originally entitled "Drink More Water" and cited an erroneous recommendation that people drink 8 or more cups of water today. That's a myth. It's been replaced with a chart on adult vaccination rates. I regret the error.